Jan Anderson holds an understory palm
From the New Guinea rain-forest,
Calyptrocalyx polyphyllus, in her nursery
I look at the twenty-foot-tall tree that the charred little leaf became. “What a great metaphor,” I say, “to prove that sometimes the last thing we want turns out to be exactly what we need.” We both laugh, marveling at the outcome of this literal trial by fire.
Jan tells me her story as we walk around her nursery. She came to East Hawai‘i in the ’70s, craving water after years in Arizona. She arrived to the start of a torrential two-week rainstorm and never left. She became a HIPSter twenty-four years ago, attending her first meeting seven months pregnant, and she shows me some of her “dinosaurs,” palms grown from seed she got at those first meetings. She also shows me a few natives, Pritchardia or loulu in Hawaiian. Pritchardia are the only palms indigenous to the Islands, and there are some twenty-five different species of them in Hawai‘i: Each island has its own, and most of the islands have several. Pritchardia have become fairly rare, and they are not counted among the seven common palms that make Jeff want to gag. Bringing them back—into the consciousness, into the landscape—is another mandate of the HIPS crowd.
Pritchardia aside, Jan says when it comes to palms she thinks in terms of beauty and landscape more than rarity and commonness. She points to a cluster of short trees with bright green fan-shaped leaves. “This is the first palm I ever fell in love with,” she tells me. “They’re Johannesteijsmannia altifrons, native to Malaysia. I saw a picture of the leaves used as thatch and thought, ‘Wow!’” Another, Licuala grandis, she “first fell in love with in a pot in a café in Indonesia. It looked so powerful and exotic.”
Listening to Jan talk about these palms she loves, I’m reminded of something Alan said: “Palms are not touchy-feely—I mean, when you’ve got a tree that’s 100 feet tall outfitted in silver blue: naaaahhhh. Palms are like dinosaurs: sort of spectacular, way different, mysterious. You don’t get immediate gratification. You have to commit to the plant, establish a relationship.” Something about the certainty in his inflection made him sound just like Marlin Perkins from Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.
If Jeff illustrates the significance of what’s happening on the Big Island and Jan the enchantment, Bo-Goran Lundkvist and Karel Havlicek offer a glimpse into the quirkiness. They are both collectors, both obsessive about plants. Karel, for example, has some 10,000 species on his three acres above Hilo. That’s 10,000 species, not 10,000 plants. Both are HIPSters, both immigrants from Europe who spent years in Southern California before striking out for the Big Island. There the similarity ends. Bo is all about order, symmetry. He is from Sweden, and he reminds me so much of Max von Sydow that I keep waiting for his placid exterior to give way to addled angst the way it always did in the movies. But it never happens: Bo is happy here with his palms. His garden, set on five acres in Leilani Estates, is an astonishing feat: 5,000 palms, 600 species, all laid out according to land of origin and meticulously labeled. Though technically it’s just Bo’s front yard, it feels more like a legit botanical garden than any other place I saw on the Big Island—and that includes a legit botanical garden.